During the first weekend with few restrictions, business owners navigate freedom and safety – The Washington Post

By Emily Davies,

Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

David Branch, owner of Street Cutts, trims Wayne Monk’s hair in D.C. on Saturday. Branch is one of many business owners in Wards 7 and 8 trying to navigate Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s new coronavirus guidelines, which allow them to decide whether masks are required indoors.

A woman with her mask dangling off her chin rushed past a waitress, who was sanitizing a menu, to take a call.

A restaurant owner sat barefaced on his couch, but his tables remained spaced six feet apart.

A vaccinated barber gave his vaccinated neighbor a haircut. One wore a mask. The other smiled without one.

It was the first weekend in over a year with almost no coronavirus restrictions, and D.C.’s businesses were reckoning with how to keep their employees and customers safe.

A new order from D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), which went into effect early Friday, lifted most capacity restrictions and removed masking requirements for patrons fully vaccinated against the coronavirus. The sudden reversion to the Before Times has provided relief for owners eager to break even after a long year in the red, but it has also proved complicated for those trying to find the line between freedom and safety — especially in areas where vaccine uptake has sputtered.

That dynamic is especially complex in Wards 7 and 8, predominantly Black and low-income areas that were hardest hit by the coronavirus and continue to have the lowest vaccination rates in the city. The latest data provided by D.C. shows that 21 percent of Ward 7 and 16 percent of Ward 8 are fully vaccinated, compared with, for example, 36 percent of residents in the city’s affluent Ward 3.

[One shot, free transportation and on-site child care: How groups in D.C. are working to vaccinate people in hard-hit Ward 8]

At Busboys and Poets in Anacostia on Saturday morning, Kim Brooks-Rob, 48, approached the front-of-house manager, masked, and asked for a table for 13.

Brooks-Rob had been excited to restart her annual tours to D.C. with the Positive Black Male Association of Houston, which brings 6-to-18-year-old boys to the nation’s capital to see the monuments and tour colleges. But when she arrived at Union Station, her favorite souvenir shop was shuttered. When she checked in hungry at her hotel, she learned that the restaurant was closed.

And little did she know that just two days earlier, restaurants were banned from seating more than 10 people.

But on Saturday, Deonta Fouch, the manager, replied, “right this way,” and escorted the gaggle of young men to a table inside.

They kept their masks on until they sat down, as did most people that morning. Though, per restaurant rules, they didn’t have to.

Busboys and Poets owner Andy Shallal had decided to allow his customers to wander around barefaced indoors without asking for vaccination status.

“I think at some point, I imagine we have to go maskless, and therefore if this is the time that the health department decided, then I’m all for it,” he said, adding that he would never have one set of rules for locations depending on the average vaccination status of its neighbors.

His staff, however, remained masked.

About 15 minutes away in Ward 7, Wayne Monk, was getting his hair cut at Street Cutts. He walked through a front door that had three signs mandating mask use.

Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

Signs asking customers to wear masks are still in the window of Street Cutts on Saturday.

“Please wear a face mask.”

“Face masks required.”

“Wear your mask.”

Monk, 55, sat in a chair barefaced.

“He’s my neighbor,” said owner David Branch. “We know we’re both vaccinated.”

Monk, who contracted a severe case of the coronavirus in January, was just getting his sense of smell back. He clutched his mask in his hand as he explained that a shot in the arm made him feel at ease sitting in the chair without a face covering.

Branch kept on his mask as he trimmed Monk’s beard, as did the line of barbers on either side of him.

“I’ll keep it on for a little while, until the coronavirus dies down a little more,” Branch said of his mask. “Until more people get vaccinated, too.”

Branch had decided, however, to relax his appointment-only policy in light of Bowser’s new regulations.

A few minutes later, another customer walked in, masked, and Branch shouted, “We’re back open for business!”

[D.C. to remove capacity, activity restrictions for most businesses on May 21]

Around the corner in the noodle aisle at Menick’s Market, Joe Chau, the store’s owner, chatted with Deborah Jones, executive director of the Ward 7 Business Partnership.

“It’s still up to you, even with what the mayor said,” Jones said to Chau.

“Yeah, but if I tell them to wear a mask, you know what’ll happen,” Chau said. “I’ll get a whole story. Or someone will get aggressive.”

Chau, who decided recently that he wanted to be vaccinated, spent much of the past year figuring out how to balance the threat of the coronavirus with the dangers of enforcing the mask mandate.

So for him, Bowser’s order meant permission to let masklessness slide.

“I would prefer that everyone wear a mask,” he said. “But now it’s their choice, and there’s not much I can say or do.”

Two young girls an aisle over purchased juice and gummy candies, maskless. The man in line behind them had two masks covering his face.

Astrid Riecken for The Washington Post

Joe Chau, right, owner of Menick’s Market, talks to Deborah Jones, executive director of the Ward 7 Business Partnership, about how to navigate Bowser’s guidelines on Saturday.

Jones said she awarded security grants to businesses in Ward 7 to add protection for owners trying to enforce masking and social distancing requirements. At one liquor store, she said, a woman smashed wine bottles after the owner asked her to don a mask.

Beneath the slow and piecemeal unmasking at D.C.’s businesses on Saturday was a sense of hope, in large part reflective of the city’s falling coronavirus case rate and rising vaccination rate that made more full reopenings possible.

Store owners and patrons on Saturday who were once skeptical of vaccinations said they were ready to make an appointment — citing the growing number of people they knew with shots in their arms.

Laura Askew, 53, walked into the back of the Community Wellness Ventures just down the block from Busboys and Poets. It was the mental health clinic’s first day running a public coronavirus vaccine clinic, and it was Askew’s first time showing up to get a shot.

“I was unsure for a while, just listening to other people, I’d heard bad things,” Askew said. “But then people from this center called me, and they’ve done a lot for me in the past. So I said, I’m ready.”

“Plus,” Askew said, beaming. “I’ve got a brand new grandson, and I gotta be here for him.”

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